Tuesday, 29 July 2008

House on the Edge of the Park (1980)

Ceramic dog figurines.
Inexplicably popular amongst the New York elite.

With the remake of 1972's The Last House on the Left on the horizon I thought it would be a good idea to go back and revisit that film. Then I realised I'd already reviewed it, so I settled for the House on the Edge of the Park, a film that arrived eight years after The Last House on the Left graced the drive-ins of the USA, and tried to prove that anything that the Americans can do, the Italians can do sleazier and with more boobs. Helming this effort is Ruggero Deodato, purveyor of fine cannibal-based entertainments, teaming up with actor David Hess, who is essentially reprising his memorable role as a sadistic rapist psycho.

The film begins with Alex (David Hess) cruising down the highway while making faces at a fellow motorist, and just in case the casting of Hess wasn't enough of a clue, he cuts her off and then rapes/murders her in her back seat. At first I thought there was something wrong with my dvd player because during the act the film will occasionally cut to a black screen for a second or two. Afterwards he steals her necklace and wears it as a memento. So, it's pretty clear that he's not a nice guy. An indeterminate amount of time later he's getting ready to boogie with his pal Ricky (he says this about fifty times, so you know he loves to boogie and also possibly the night life). Ricky is played by Giovanni Lombardi Radice, who was last seen with an enormous drill bit through his head in City of the Living Dead. Like his character from that film, he's a few shingles short of a roof, so it's abudantly clear that he's our retarded sidekick who will be manipulated into doing horrible things.

Meanwhile, a pretty girl named Lisa (Annie Belle) and her even prettier boyfriend Tom (Christian Borromeo from Tenebre) are driving along making small talk about the party they are headed to. It's at an isolated house that is presumably on the edge of a park, but like The Last House on the Left it's location doesn't figure into the plot at all. They pull into a parking garage and announce that they have car trouble. Wait, what car trouble? Is it a parking garage or an auto repair shop? Oh well, no matter, because it turns out it's the very garage where Alex and Ricky are getting ready for their night on the town. He offers them forty bucks to fix his car (forty bucks?! My mechanic charges me a hundred just to open the hood) and pretty soon Alex and Ricky have invited themselves along to the party. Awk-ward! Before he leaves Alex grabs a straight razor from his locker, so you know he's got more planned that just boogyin'.

Soon after they arrive it's clear that every one of the five guests are the kind of bored rich fucks you just want to punch in the face on sight. There's even a bald girl with two-tone lipstick who shouts out "Hot diggity!" when they arrive. They all goad Ricky into dancing and performing a strip tease for them, and it becomes clear to Alex that they're just there for these snobs' entertainment. Alex follows Lisa into the kitchen and is seduced by the way she drinks straight from the bottle ("Looks like you're givin' it head!"). She starts flirting with him, only to reject him when things get heavy and she heads upstairs for a shower. Pretty weird behaviour at a party, I know, but David Hess has just been licking her thighs so it's understandable. Upstairs she invites him in to scrub her back then cockblocks him again. What a tease!

Frustrated, Alex heads downstairs to find the rest of them scamming Ricky at a poker game. Scamming a retarded guy, that's pretty low, so Alex starts a fistfight that leaves one of the guys (a caveman looking guy named Howard) bloodied and bruised. He even calls the bald girl a twat. Alex drags Howard outside and tosses him into the pool and pisses on his head while giving a hearty maniacal laugh. He's having a great time. After tying him up he sets about terrorizing the rest of the guests with his razor blade. Tom has no balls, so he does fuck all except sit there and glare for most of the movie. At one point Alex teaches him a lesson by bashing his face against a table so many times I lost count. I assumed he was dead but he only suffers a few cuts and bruises. He doesn't even lose consciousness. He may have no balls, but at least he's resilient.

In every film like this there's got to be a scene where the leader tries to force the retarded sidekick into raping one of the victims in front of everyone. It's a law or something. This film is no exception and naturally Ricky can't go through with it. She tries to escape later and when Ricky chases her down in the greenhouse and she fucks him right there in the geraniums. Maybe it was sudden case of Stockholm Syndrom or maybe she was seduced by his gentlemanly act of not-raping-her. Alex, however, is not a gentleman, and rapes Lisa in an upstairs bedroom. During the act some cheesy soft-porn music kicks and she gets a look on her face like she's totally into it. I don't know if this is supposed to be interpreted as just payback for giving him blue balls, but either way... not classy.

Eventually a tardy guest named Cindy shows up, and when Alex terrorises her, strips her and starts cutting her up with his razor, it's the last straw for Ricky. When he tries to intervene Alex slashes him across the chest. The wound doesn't look fatal, but this doesn't stop Alex from launching into a tearful death scene, cradling Ricky in his arms and sobbing. It's somewhat less than heart-wrenching, but Tom finally mans up and uses the opportunity to grab a pistol from the desk drawer. He shoots Alex in the leg and shoulder, sending him stumbling backwards through the glass door and into the yard, and it's here that Tom reveals the film's big twist, which I'll come back to later. Tom punctuates his speech by blasting Alex right in the balls. This illicits the most cartoony, slow-motion scream I've ever seen. He opens his mouth so wide I could count his fillings (lay off the sweets, Hess). He falls backwards into the pool and several of the guests take turns shooting him. The battered Howard lifts him out of the pool and holds him so close I though he was going to start making out with him, but he just tosses him back in the pool and shoots him. He doesn't piss on his head though, he's not going to stoop to his level.

Now, I guess we are supposed to symphathise with Alex at this point, realising that the victims are a bunch of cold-blooded murderers and really no better than Alex and Ricky. But really, Alex has raped or attempted to rape several women by this point, beaten two of them to a bloody pulp and psychologically tortured them for hours on end, so it's hard not to feel like justice has been served. They were rich assholes, but they didn't deserve that. The only time the party guests get close to crossing the line is when Howard goes to shoot Ricky (yeah, he's still alive) but is convinced to let him live. Plus it's hard to buy Tom as a stone cold killer when he looks like an even girlier version of Cillian Murphy.

Okay the big twist? All aboard the non-stop express to Spoilertown! It turns out that the woman Alex raped and killed at the beginning of the film was Tom's sister and the party was all a set-up so they could goad him into action and then shoot him in "self defence". I don't think I really need to explain why this is dumbest plan in the history of planning. Their decision to let Ricky live will probably have some repurcussions, but Tom seems pretty satisfied with the outcome. In the understatement of the year, he notes that it was more difficult to get at the gun than he thought it would be. Next time maybe you should carry the gun on your person, champ. Just a helpful suggestion. I don't know how they figured out Alex was the rapist, either. I thought maybe he noticed his sister's necklace around his neck, but that couldn't be true because he says that the engine trouble was part of his plan. Oh well, the world is full of mysteries.

With Deodato as a director it probably goes without saying, but the execution is extremely tacky and exploitative. Almost every women in the film strips down bare-ass naked (yay!), usually in the context of a sexual assault or rape (boo!). He isn't subtle about it either, some of the shots of nipples were so close up you could count the bumps on the areoli. There's only one death, but the beatings are very brutal and bloody. Acting is not so great, but with David Hess his ocasionally hammy acting works in the movie's favour. When he's putting on his nice-guy act at the beginning of film it's so obviously false it makes him seem pretty creepy. I'm sure this guy is nice enough in real life, but between this film and The Last House on the Left, I don't know if I'd invite him around to babysit my children. I'm not sure I'd trust him to water my plants. He'd probably rape them.

Obviously the film tries to set-up a bit of class warfare, the rich snobs versus the working class Alex and Ricky. Like an 80s college movie, only with rape and brutal beatings instead of a yacht race or zany fundraiser. The problem is that the punishment Alex dishes out is so extreme compared to the crime (of being assholes) that it's hard to care about him when he finally gets his comeuppance. There was the same problem in The Last House on the Left, but it's even worse here and there isn't even the comical sight of a middle-aged man running around menacing people with a chainsaw to make up for it. At least this film doesn't have an awful comedy subplot about a bumbling sherriff, so score one for Deodato. This is not a bad entry in Deodato's catalogue, especially since he managed to punch out Cannibal Holocaust in the same year. It was a complete flop artistically, but I can't say I didn't enjoy it. If you enjoy watching tasteless filth and depravity, you might enjoy it too.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Beyond the Darkness (aka Buio Omega) (1979)

"I was beginning to suspect my husband was cheating on me."

It's been a while since I've reviewed some trashy Italian horror, so who better to turn to than the King of Trash, Aristide Massaccesi, better known as Joe D'Amato. I've reviewed a few D'Amato films, from post-apocalyptic actioners to lousy zombie sequels, but this one is probably one of his best known. Beyond the Darkness (aka Buio Omega) rode the wave of gory shock films that peaked in the late 70s, combining copious nudity with fetishistic gore.

As far as creepy hobbies go, taxidermy has to be one of the creepiest. Sure it starts innocently enough: A squirrel here, a baboon there, but pretty soon you're looking down at the body of your dead girlfriend and thinking how good she'd look on the wall of your trophy room. Enter Frankie (Keiran Canter), recent heir to a huge fortune and a remote countryside villa complete with it's own mortuary and crematorium. Convenient! After getting a call from the hospital about his sick girlfriend Anna, he rushes to her bedside (bowling over a patient who mutters "Where'd you get your license?" despite the fact that they're both walking) and sneaks one last kiss before she shuffles off her mortal coil.

Sure enough, he starts discreetly shooting her up with formaldehyde while she's at the funeral parlour (witnessed by a nosy mortician, more on him later) and the night after the funeral he grabs a shovel and heads out to the graveyard in his bright red van. It's grave robbing time! Unfortunately he gets a flat tyre on the way back, and by the time he's changed it a chubby stoner (with a ridiculous accent that would make Eliza Doolittle cringe) has climbed into the passenger seat and demands transportation. Pretty soon she's taken a pot-induced trip to Sleepytown, and for some reason Frankie goes home and leaves her snoozing in the van while he starts work on Anna.

This is probably the big gory set piece of the film. Frankie cuts open her body and rips out intestines, livers and various other organs and unceremoniously dumps them in a bucket. Now, I'm no mortician, but isn't this the kind of stuff the funeral parlour should have taken care of earlier? What are they being paid for? He even shoves a couple of tubes up her nose and proceeds to pump her brains into a big jar. It treats the whole embalming process with a perverse attention to detail, and D'Amato's stark, lingering camerawork doesn't help. It's almost pornographic, and considering D'Amato's body of work that isn't surprising. The hitchhiker wakes up and stumbles across Frankie right when he's busy replacing Anna's eyes with some glass substitutes. As she is backing out of the room she knocks over the bucket o' guts, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who wished she had actually got her foot stuck in the bucket and tried to hobble her way to safety, sloshing entrails all over the place. A real missed opportunity. Frankie calmly finishes the job, chases her down, pulls out all of her fingernails with a pair of pliers and smothers her with a towel.

Well great, now he's got two bodies to take care of. Luckily he's got an accomplice by the name of Iris (Franca Stoppi from The Other Hell, in "severe matriarch" mode). She's the housekeeper, and her relationship with Frankie could charitably be described as "dysfunctional". She's actually the one responsible for Anna's illness (via voodoo magic), and while she's none too happy about him keeping Anna around the house post-mortem, she is more than happy to help him dispose of bodies and even give him the occasional handjob when he's feeling down. I know she means well, but she's got to realise that this kind of enabling behaviour is just preventing him from reaching his full potential. And while the debate about the benefits of breastfeeding still rages on today, I think we can all agree that it's time to stop once he's pushing thirty.

For some reason they have half a dozen huge bottles of acid lying around, so Iris gets to work carving up the hitchhiker's jiggly naked body with a cleaver while Frankie dumps the various bits and pieces in the bathtub. In a nice touch, a half-dissolved head bobs to the surface, complete with eyeball. After dumping the resulting slurry in a pit, the two of them sit down to nice chunky stew and Iris's atrocious table manners (she could have at least taken off her leather apron and washed her hands) have Frankie puking in the corner. She takes a strange delight in this. It's kind of weird.

Now murders are much like rich, chocolaty Tim-Tams in that it's difficult to stop at just one. By the next morning Frankie is out chatting up an injured jogger, who can't see past his smiling facade of feathered hair, v-neck jumpers and high-waisted slacks. Unfortunately for her, Frankie is gunning for some sort of necrophiliac three-way, making out with her on the very same bed where Anna is lying under the covers. When she spies Anna's corpse and starts screaming, Frankie takes a huge chomp out of her throat and soon they've got another body on their hands. To the crematorium!

While all of this is going on, that nosy mortician is sneaking around, trying to gather evidence of Frankie's shenanigans for blackmailing purposes. Frankie seems pretty careless with his evidence, but luckily Iris is on the ball. She even moves Anna's body to the wardrobe but leaves a big suspicious lump in the bed for him to find. Psyche! The cops also show up at one point but Frankie's nervous explanation seems to satisfy them.

Eventually Anna's sister shows up on Frankie's doorstep, a spitting image of her sibling, and Frankie is smitten. This is too much for the jealous Iris, who starts chasing after her with a butcher knife. Frankie catches Iris in the act and they end up in a battle royale that results in lacerated cheeks, gouged out eyes and stabbed groins. Frankie gasps his final breath just as the mortician arrives with his incriminating photos, resulting in a silly final twist that I guess was supposed to be shocking.

Although there is a lot of nudity (naturally the hottest girl, the jogger, doesn't get naked) but don't expect any explicit sex scenes. Those expecting necrophilia-based pornography should go elsewhere, preferably to their nearest mental health clinic. The film tries to make up for it with gore. Apparently when the film was released some people thought D'Amato used real cadavers, but the effects aren't anything that couldn't be achieved with some foam latex and (literally) a bucket of pig guts. Some of the effects are pretty sloppy (the glass eye insertion scene, for instance) but most are well-realised. Eponymous prog-rockers Goblin provided the soundtrack, but it isn't one of their better efforts, repetitive and synth-heavy, with no memorable hooks. That didn't stop Bruno Mattei from using it again in The Other Hell but when did a lack of quality stop him from doing anything?

This film could have been a gore-soaked meditation on love and loss and Frankie's own battle to get out from under the thumb of his psychotic housekeeper. It didn't take that direction, however. Iris and Frankie are both incorrigable weirdos with no real motivation given for their psychological problems. Their behaviour is often inexplicable. Granted this is probably due to a poor script and a lack of craft, but it does give the film a surreal quality where you feel like anything could happen. Although for long stretches nothing actually does happen, so don't expect a non-stop gorefest. As far as D'Amato goes, you could do worse. If you're looking for a D'Amato film and you're not in the mood for historically-themed hardcore pornography (which really narrows your options), this is probably one of your better picks.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Guy N. Smith Book Review - Throwback

When I started reading this book I was expecting something like Cannibals. Some people stumble across a bunch of cannibalistic cave-dwelling savages in the the remote Scottish highlands, violence ensues. Instead I got something quite different, a piece of survivalist horror kind of like Night of the Living Dead.

An unknown virus (possibly a Russian viral bomb, it's never really explained) has swept across most of the Western world, turning the vast majority of the population into cavemen (or "throwbacks"). They grow lots of hair, become squat and muscular and lose all capacity for reason. Like rugby players. They also become obsessed with sex, chasing down any woman unfortunate enough to cross their path. Also like rugby players. Even the animals aren't safe: Dogs turn into mutant wolves and geese turn into, I don't know, cave-geese. Crazy stuff. The survivors manage to force the cavemen into the forest, where they form small tribes and start building primitive huts, hunting and fishing (I really think that this kind of stuff is learned behaviour, but the books suggests it's instinctual).

Most of the book is spent with Jon and Jackie Quinn, a married couple who own a small organic farm in Shrewsbury. Jackie was separated from Jon when the virus hit, and quickly succumbs to it's effects in the opening chapters. Jon, meanwhile, survives it's effects and is shacked up with the promiscuous Sylvia, all the while pining for his lost wife. The book skips between these two characters, detailing Jackie's attempt to fit in with her new caveman brethren while clinging to what little remains of her humanity, and Jon's attempts to keep himself alive in a world that's turned wild.

Jackie ends up going by the more caveman-friendly moniker Jac, and pretty soon she's shacked up with the tribe's alpha male, Kuz. She's one of those super-hot cavewomen, like Rachel Welch in One Million Years B.C., so she's hot property. Unfortunately for Jac, much like in real life, the alpha male is a huge asshole, so Jac escapes along with a human prisoner of theirs named Phil. Will she end up finding her way back to Jon? Can their love bridge the gap of a few million years of evolution and the serious need of a Lady Bic?

The book also follows a few other characters, including Sylvia's husband Eric, who still longs for her despite his metamorphosis. Eventually he tracks her down and busts into their cottage, they immediately start fucking on the kitchen floor. He nearly concusses her on a table leg and it's all over in about ten seconds before he runs away. Doesn't sound very romantic if you ask me, but it's enough to convince her to run away and live the life of the wild with him.

In most books of this type, you don't really care about the monsters because, well, they're monsters, but here the menace is much more human. Several chapters are written from their point of view and much attempt is made to humanise them. Most of the time they are scared, fleeing in terror at the sight of modern technology but when they get angry they are merciless and brutal. There is a chapter where a bunch of soldiers get ambushed by some cavemen and some of them are quite conflicted about shooting them. The remaining authorities try to flush them out of the cities and send them into the countryside, but that only creates more trouble when it's discovered they probably won't survive the harsh British winter. It probably isn't explored as much as I would like, but it's an interesting dilemma.

The book is also scattered with chapters about a callous scientist named Professor Reitze, who captures the cavemen and performs cruel experiments on them to try and find a cure. He injects them with experimental chemicals that make their eyeballs swell up and burst and liquified brains to pour from their fractured skulls (don't read chapter 14 if you've just eaten is what I'm saying). At first he rationalises his cruelty to himself, figuring that by performing these experiments he is trying to save civilisation, but by the end of the book he's gone completely off the rails, torturing them for fun and relieving stress by heading out to the woods and hunting them for sport. While doing so he curses them out with some hilariously profane insults including "pig-fucks", "fuck bastards" and "shitfuckers". Throughout the book there are many mentions of him smoking Camels, the cigarette of choice for sociopathic scientists everywhere.

This one was pretty good. An interesting survival horror story broken up with Smith's trademark sex scenes every couple of dozen of pages. Most of the book was pretty meandering, just trying to tell the stories of both sides through the eyes of a few different characters. There isn't a strong narrative and it's pretty bleak in tone, but this is one of Smith's better ones.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Half Past Dead (2002)

Yes, this is Seagal making his anguish face in a do-rag.
Cinema doesn't get any better than this.

In the early 2000's, Andrzej Bartkowiak directed a trilogy of ridiculous action films with stupid names. In some sort of Reese's Peanut Butter Cup style experiment, they teamed up established martial artists with rappers. It worked out well and the films were mildly successful. While Jet Li was the martial arts draw in Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave, Seagal filled the role in Exit Wounds. I don't know, if I was Jet Li I'd be insulted. Seagal was way past his prime by this point. I suppose Half Past Dead was an attempt to recapture the magic, this time with Ja Rule instead of DMX and Kurupt as an added bonus comedy relief character. The title is certainly as stupid as any of Bartkowiak's films. I kept expecting a villain to ask Seagal for the time and him to whisper "It's half past DEAD!" and break his neck, but it never happened.

Seagal plays Sasha Petrosevitch, a Russian car thief who may or may not be an undercover FBI agent. He doesn't affect a Russian accent, the closest he gets is a cultural exchange with his partner Nick Frazier (Ja Rule) where he learns how to say "a'ight". I'm the whitest whitey ever, so I have no idea if Ja Rule's rhymes are fresher than DMX's or whatever, but he's certainly not as charismatic an actor. After crime boss Sonny "I've got a big wart on my forehead that's really distracting" Eckvall (Richard Bremmer) forces Seagal to take a lie detector test to prove he's not an undercover cop, he's hired along with Nick to steal a fancy sports car. Seagal treats the car pretty rough, leaping it so high that he scrapes the roof on an overhanging sign, before screeching to a halt and flinging his partner out of the passenger door, ten feet through the air and into the windshield of another car. This is Seagal's idea of a funny prank. Anyway, they are immediately raided by FBI agents, and in the ensuing gun battle Seagal is injured when he tries to save Nick. Seagal has a near death experience (hence the title) where he has visions of his dead wife.

Cut to some time later and Seagal and Nick are being transferred to the futuristic prison of New Alcatraz. It's the grand opening and while one of the reporters complain that the new prison is a step backwards in criminal warehousing, it looks alright to me. If anything it's a bit too lenient. The chief warden wears a leather jacket, calls himself El Fuego and he calls the inmates by gang-friendly terms such as "esé" and "homes". He lets them have Playstations in their cells, use power tools, he even lets Seagal and beat up a prison guard with no repurcussions. Just to get his aggression out, you know? I don't know, that seems like the kind of stuff that prisoners would take advantage of. Luckily the prison population consists pretty much entirely of lovable scoundrels, so nothing really goes wrong. Hell, there's a death row train robber named Lester who is practically angelic. He derailed the train and killed some Federal Marshalls, but it was an accident so it's okay to root for him. Because he's being such a good sport about this execution thing, El Fuego grants his last wish to spend his final hour chatting to Seagal. Who could blame him, that would be my wish too.

Seagal drinks tea with him in a cool glass-walled room with computer generated scenery on the walls. It's pretty fancy, and when your time is up the electric chair rises up dramatically out of the floor like it's Iron Chef or something. They should add some smoke, maybe some fireworks and dramatic orchestral music. Lester wants to talk about Seagal's near death experience (I don't know how he found out about that) but Seagal is pretty vague and tight-lipped about it. You'd think Seagal would at least humour him. Anyway, it turns out he hid the proceeds of his train robbery in a secret location, and the feds have been trying to get the information out of him. One of the FBI guys even interrogates him at gunpoint while he's sitting in the electric chair, right in front of the Supreme Court Justice. Pretty unprofessional. Before they pull the switch and fry Lester, a bunch of well-armed crooks parachute into New Alcatraz and take him prisoner with the hopes of forcing him to lead them to the hidden treasure. I should add that they kill about a dozen prison guards and let out all the prisoners (pretty stupid move on their part, actually) over the course of fifteen minutes, and nobody in the execution chamber is even notified. When their evac helicopter crashes into the roof of the prison, the crooks are forced to take everyone hostage and negotiate with the FBI for their escape.

The bad guys call themselves "49er One" through to "49er Twelve", with 49er One being the big cheese. His real name is Don Johnson (he doesn't wear a white suit or shoes without socks or anything) and he is actually one of the guys in charge of the prison. He is played by Morris Chestnut, last seen with Seagal in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, where he played the comic relief sidekick. Here he plays lead villain, a respectable step up. Usually a character like this would have some beef with the government, but here he is just a sociopathic asshole who likes money. Nia Peeples plays a woman in shiny skin-tight vinyl and a floor length trenchcoat (49er something, I can't remember). She does a few flips and dual wields pistols. She's basically the budget Trinity. Seriously though, the bright blue eyeshadow? Doesn't work. That kind of crazy, over-the-top makeup can work really well on a villian (eg Lola in Transporter 2), but that colour looks terrible on you. You're really more of an autumn. She utters a couple of lines but she's basically mute for the whole film. The rest of the bad guys are your standard goons.

After doing the Die Hard thing for a while, Seagal ends up negotiating with 49er One to swap Lester for the Supreme Court Justice. Seagal knows he can't take them all on himself, but luckily the prisoners are housed right next to a room filled with machine guns and explosives. Kurupt blasts the gate with a bazooka (propelling him ten feet backwards and through a window... comedy!) and pretty soon all the prisoners are gearing up for a final battle. There's no power struggles or infighting or anything. They all just step in line behind Seagal. A huge gunfight follows, with Seagal and Nick manning the machine gun in the cockpit of the crashed helicopter, but after the hostages are exchanged we find that the bad guys have pulled a fast one, it's not the Supreme Court Justice at all, just some woman.

Luckily Seagal pulled some tricks of his own. Lester has decked himself out in a suicide bomber vest and once the Seagal performs a mid-air, sky-diving rescue of the Supreme Court Justice, he blows the bad guy's chopper sky high. That bit was pretty good, I must admit. Nick was supposedly killed during the gun battle, but at the end it's revealed that he survived and Seagal manages to pull some strings and get him out of prison early. There's a bit during the credits where Kurupt talks on a prison phone with his girl on the outside, which is funnier than any of the comic relief he did during the film.

There's also a lot of plot points that don't go anywhere. I mean, how can you specifically point out that Seagal has a titanium knee and then not have him knee someone in the balls (or skull) with a hilarious metallic "clang" sound. It's sloppy filmmaking. They also point out he's Russian, but he doesn't have any Russian mafia contacts or drink any vodka or anything. It doesn't figure into the film at all. There also might or might not be a bit in the film where Seagal is an undercover FBI agent who is trying to bust that crime boss Sonny Eckvall who killed his wife. He mentions that he'd captured the guy at the end but they don't even show it, it just feels tacked on. That is, it would feel tacked on if it were in the film. Which it might be, but I'm not saying either way.

There's some good over-the-top action, like when Seagal flips around a gun that's caught in a door, turning it on the bad guys. Seagal also has a mid-air fight with 49er One while they are both swinging on some chains, like on Gladiators. They are taking cues from the Matrix, so most of the fights are quite acrobatic, with lots of flips and people getting thrown about. Seagal is doubled for pretty much everything. There's some annoying editing tricks (skipped frames, slow-motion etc) but it's not too hard to follow what's going on. Unfortunately it really suffers from it's toned-down rating. There's lots of gunfights that try to ape John Woo. You've got your slow-motion leaping, your dual pistols (although I don't think FBI agents normally carry twin pistols in crossed-draw holsters), your sparks (oh God, do you ever have your sparks, it's like they're in a fireworks factory) but there isn't the sense of drama or tight choreography. Plus, it's pretty rare that somebody ever gets shot and when they are there isn't even any blood. It gets pretty ridiculous when you've got people standing about 5 meters apart, firing round after round and not hitting jack shit.

The soundtrack is a blend of techno, nu-metal and hip-hop. The bad guys get all the rockin' metal guitars while the good guys get the hip-hop. During the fight scenes they compromise on techno. Look filmmakers, if you're going to blank out all the swearing, don't include songs in the soundtrack that feature "motherfucker" as a prominent part of the lyrics. It's just common sense. Besides, you think all the kids who are going to see this film because of Ja Rule (most of them, probably) haven't heard the word "motherfucker" before? Those motherfuckers probably use the word "motherfucker" a hundred motherfucking times a day.

Needless to say, this film did not recapture the magic of Exit Wounds and instead was Seagal's last cinematic release, dooming him to Direct-to-Video. It was written and directed by some guy named Don Michael Paul and while I only listened to the first few minutes of his commentary, he was talking about fusing hip-hop and action like he was really breaking new ground. That ship has sailed, buddy, it's not even the first time Seagal explored this territory. After this film he wrote and directed 2007's Who's Your Caddy. I've never seen and I don't plan to, but apparently it's a comedy where a rapper and his entourage try to enter an exclusive golf club full of stuffy white conservatives, presumably hoeing the fertile comedic ground of white people acting like this, and black people acting like this. So it's good to see that he's still on the cutting edge.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Voorhees a Jolly Good Fellow - Part 3

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

After the dismal reception of Part VIII, the rights to the character of Jason Voorhees were sold to New Line films. Not, however, the rights to the title Friday the 13th, which is why the ninth film is titled Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Yeah right, like we believe that after The Final Chapter. Jason is blown to pieces in an F.B.I. sting operation, but manages to survive by possessing the coroner. Subsequently he tries to get hold of his hitertho unmentioned sister and niece so he can regain possession of his original body. Although I applaud the attempt to take the series in a new direction, I found this one pretty hit and miss. I liked some of the touches, such as how Crystal Lake has become something of a tourist trap, selling Jason Voorhees themed hamburgers and t-shirts. Anyway, due to the possession, the true Jason isn't seen very much at all except at the very beginning and end, and what we see sure differs from the previous films. His head is malformed, bloated and bloody and it looks like the flesh is growing around the mask, like it's an organic part of his body. The mask itself shiny, almost metallic, and we never see what lies underneath. Interesting idea, but I think it looks kind of stupid. He also has some long stringy hair, not seen since Part 2. His outfit hearkens back to the days of Part 3-5, a tattered blue jumpsuit and workboots. Is it just me, or does he look a bit fat?

Jason X (2002)

By 2002 both the Leprechaun and Hellraiser series had jettisoned their main characters into space for a bit of sci-fi horror. Not wanting to be left behind in the horror space race, Jason Voorhees followed suit with Jason X. It's in this film that Jason's seeming immortality is explained away by a mysterious regenerative ability. For most of the movie he gets around in a blue shirt and pants, this time with a tattered brown coat over the top. It's a good look, I think. His mask features the axe damage from Part III and he's even got some patchy hair. He is seen briefly without his mask, and he looks swollen and rubbery, almost like a cartoon character, but still recognisably human. He has some wiry tufts of hair and in some scenes it even looks a little grey. I guess Jason is starting to show his age. Towards the end of the film he gets his much-ballyhooed upgrade and becomes Jason 2.0. Some of his limbs are replaced with robotic prosthetics and his mask becomes a shiny chrome skull-like affair. Jason 2.0 gets two thumbs down from me.

Freddy vs Jason (2003)

In a rather shameless grab for cash, New Line properties Freddy and Jason team up in the imaginatively titled Freddy vs Jason to produce a film that's way more entertaining that it needed to be. Freddy resurrects Jason in an attempt to bring fear back to Springwood and consequently bring back Freddy's power. Unfortunately for Freddy, Jason cannot be controlled so easily. Apparently Springwood is walking distance from Crystal Lake. Who knew? Jason goes for a slightly different look this time. Dark pants and shirt with a torn blue jumper, gloves and workboots, all topped off with a ragged brown coat. Apparently Jason's decided to rug up for cold weather this time. Nevertheless, it's a good look for him, the coat gives it a bit of contrast, brings the whole outfit together. Throughout the film his outfit gets more and more tattered until it's just a pile of scorched rags. His mask doesn't feature any battle-damage nods to continuity, but the markings more closely resemble those of the original mask in Part 3. Maybe it's just me, but it looks a little larger. You don't get a good look under the mask, the closest you get is a look at his horrific dental hygeine. He is looking pretty black and rotten, but not as much as in Part VI or VII.

Friday the 13th (2009)

So, uh, this film is produced by Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes company, the same group behind the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Amityville and Hitcher remakes. Hmm, now that's worrying. They got the mask right (not that that's everything, look at the Halloween remake) and apparently he wears a combination of a hunting jacket and a military jacket, with a ragged t-shirt and combat boots. He is also a hunchback(!) and noticably leaner than previous incarnations. I'm glad that he's not built like a wrestler this time around, that got pretty silly towards the end when he was supposed to be a rotted corpse. Apparently the film is going to compress the events of the first three films into one film (kids today get bored with things like "suspense" and "tension"), which means bag-head Jason is going to make an appearance! I don't have high hopes for this film but I don't really care a great deal since Friday the 13th was/is a considerably lower pedigree than horror classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Book Review - Seagalogy: The Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal

I got into Direct-to-Video Seagal before I'd heard of Vern, but I guess it was only a matter of time before I stumbled across the writings of one of the world's top Seagalogists. He is a regular on Ain't It Cool News (no wonder I hadn't heard of him), and while I generally avoid that site like I would a dog turd, Vern's reviews really are fantastic. He has a very conversational style, liberally sprinkled with profanity, and avoids most of the cliches you expect from a film review. No hyperbolic praise, cute puns or "it's good if you like that sort of thing" bullshit that somehow manages to see print in the newspapers. His scathing review of Transformers (and modern action films in general) had me in stitches. I swear, when I saw all the positive reviews of that film I thought I was taking crazy pills. Of course it helps that our tastes are very similar, but even when we disagree his reviews are extremely enjoyable to read. He maintains a "web-sight" compiling all of his reviews (on Geocities, if you can believe it) so check them out.

When I heard he had released a book called Seagalogy: The Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal, I knew it was time to take a chance on a book that isn't about giant crabs. Vern could have easily just stuck his existing reviews of Seagal films in a book and called it a day, but he really has done his research. He lays out the themes and motifs that underpin most of Seagal's films, the things that tie all his movies together as a complete body of work. He subscribes to a modification of the auteur theory called the badass auteur theory, where it's the star of the action film (as opposed to the director) that puts his indelible stamp on the film. When you look at all the things that usually crop up in a Seagal film (environmental themes, corrupt CIA agents, ponytails, leather jackets) it's a hard theory to refute.

He divides the films up into four eras. The Golden Era (Above the Law through to Out for Justice), the Silver Era (Under Siege through to Fire Down Below), the Transitional period (The Patriot through to Half Past Dead) and finally the DTV Era (2003-Present). Each film's review is littered with interesting and/or hilarious footnotes and concludes with a brief run-down of the film's important statistics: How much glass is broken, a description of Seagal's character's mysterious past, accuracy of cover art etc. He even covers Seagal's non-film related works such as Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt energy drink and both of his blues albums.

Don't, however, write this book off as some sort of ironic Chuck Norris hipster bullshit. Although it's all done with a wink and a smile, Vern has a serious appreciation and enthusiasm for Seagal's films (and films in general). He doesn't go for the cheap shots (like I do) and make fun of his ponytail, trenchcoats and the fact that he's bloated up like a Microsoft product. Maybe once or twice, but that's it. The book is full of jokes and witty asides, all written in his usual profanity-laden prose, but he also has the ability to actually make you think about a Seagal film, which is quite an accomplishment. It got me wanting to see On Deadly Ground again and that's pretty impressive. Even if you don't care much for Seagal, I'd be surprised if you didn't find something you like about this book. My only criticism is that at nearly 400 pages it's probably a bit too long for most readers, but as a budding Seagalogist I breezed through it in a weekend.

Out of Reach (2004)

No comment necessary

First of all, great title. Three words, following the Seagalian grammatical structure of (adverb) (preposition) (noun). It even has "Out" in the title. Unfortunately, that's about all the good things I can say about the film, except that it's mercifully brief at a scant 82 minute running time.

Things get off to a bad start immediately, with a man who is clearly not Seagal walking through a forest. Oh come on Steve, I understand that you can't throw a spinning roundhouse kick at your age, but surely you can still walk along a forest trail? The real Seagal comes across an injured bird and nurses it back to health (presumably with the same "home cooked jungle juice" he used in The Patriot). During this sequence we hear the disembodied voice of a Polish girl named Irena that Seagal has been contacting through her orphanage's outreach program. Surprisingly, Seagal's letters are narrated by a completely different voice actor. Maybe that's what the Irena imagines Seagal to sound like. Maybe that's what Seagal imagines he sounds like. Or maybe Seagal couldn't be arsed going back to the studio to loop the dialogue. Who knows.

Anyway, Seagal plays William Lansing, an ex-CSA(?) agent turned turned backwoods survivalist and freelance wildlife veterinarian. Of course, it's not long before his shadowy past comes knocking on the door of his self-built log cabin, his former CSA buddies trying to bring him back into the fold. His burnt up CSA pass identifies him as Thomas P. Riker, but they all call him "Billy Ray", and pretty soon they've got him surrounded at gunpoint. If you guessed this ended up with a bunch of unconscious government spooks and Seagal on the run, give yourself a gold star.

If that wasn't bad enough, a human trafficking ring led by Faisal (Matt Schulze) rounds up Irena and a bunch other Polish orphans with the intention selling them off in an international human trafficking ring. Briefly going undercover at the Post Office as a stubbly Frenchman in a girly fur coat (seriously), Seagal acquires a letter from the orphanage stating that Irena won't be able to communicate with him any more. Even though he has no real reason to suspect any foul play, he decides to hop on a plane to Warsaw and see what up. Hilariously, his passport and his former CSA security pass use a photo from his Out for Justice days. Think it might be time for a renewal.

After a few run-ins with the local police, Seagal befriends a pretty Polish police officer named Kaisa (Agneiszka Wagner). Don't worry, he doesn't sleep with her, the closest they get to that is an awkward one-armed half-hug. At one point she gets shot in the shoulder during a gunfight and Seagal performs some impromptu surgery using a butter knife and a hot stove. I don't know why he didn't just take her to the hospital, it's not like they're cons on the run or anything. Nevertheless, I must admit he did an excellent job because she recovers pretty much instantly, just in time for her to be shot in the shoulder again during the final gun battle.

He also befriends an orphan named Nikki who was a friend of Irena. I thought he was a mute until he starts talking about halfway through and nobody cares. Before the final confrontation he sends Nikki and Kaisa across the border to the Czech Republic and Seagal and gives Nikki a goodbye hug. The music swells like we are supposed to be dabbing our eyes or something. Come on, that kid has had about five minutes of screen time and most of that he was picking pockets and chugging vodka from the hotel mini-bar. You've got to earn that music.

Now, through her correspondence with Seagal, Irena has learned about ciphers and cryptology and she uses this knowledge to leave hidden messages for Seagal. Faisal sees her leave these messages and not only does he not destroy them, he goes out of his way to make sure Seagal receives them intact (to the point of having one of his goons stand there guarding a tray of hors d'eouvres that spell out "this is a trap" in code). I think Faisal is supposed to be one of those bad guys who has a bit of a hard-on for hero. He is always talking about "predator" and "prey", trying to make everything he says sound poetic and vaguely menacing, but it usually comes out lame and/or nonsensical. He's also likes giving roses to little girls or setting them on fire (the roses, not the little girls, though I wouldn't put that past him either). He is trying to be a sophisticated villain but he tries way too hard and it falls flat. I bet his henchmen think he's a dick. I feel bad for him.

Obviously Seagal ends up in a climactic fight with Faisal, and in a rare case of injury Seagal gets elbowed in the gut until his vision blurs. The film concludes in a swordfight with Faisal in the courtyard of his all-white castle. It actually looks pretty good, and it's framed like an old samurai film with some attempts at tension and interesting shots with artfully sprayed blood etc. This style could work, Seagal isn't much fatter that Ogami Itto in Lone Wolf and Cub after all, except that Seagal really isn't capable of holding a cool pose or swinging a sword like Tomisaburo Wakayama. Oh well, nice try anyway.

One of the complaints you can make about most of Seagal's Direct-to-Video films holds true here: The film is pretty light on action. There's a big gunfight in a brothel, a pretty cheap-looking set I might add, which is supposed to be the big action setpiece of the film. Seagal uses a secret passage (through the back of the wardrobe, Narnia-style) to gain the upper hand. It's pretty poorly choreographed and edited, it just cuts between two people shooting in slo-mo until one falls over dead. The biggest stunt is a lousy somersault, which is done in slow motion to try and trick you into thinking it's impressive. It's not even Seagal, it's a stunt double. Actually the stunt double gets a lot of screen time, and they do a pretty lousy job of concealing his face. There's even a bit at the Embassy Ball where the bad guys turn a guy around thinking it's Seagal and it's actually the stunt double. I thought it was going to be like that part in Spaceballs: "You idiots, you've captured his stunt double!"

Thankfully the plot is a lot less complicated than some of Seagal's earlier Direct-to-Video films, but there are still a lot of parts that make no sense whatsoever. I guess they tried to fix this up with a lot of post-production voiceover, narrating the thoughts of various characters, even where it doesn't make any sense. There's one scene where Seagal is driving alone in his car while Irena's thoughts are voiced aloud. Is she using telepathy? I don't get it. In another scene a couple of thugs try to attack Seagal in his hotel room, and he ends up beating one unconscious and throwing the other out of a window and onto a car below, in front of a bunch of witnesses. It's never mentioned how or why Seagal explained the incident to the hotel manager or the police, and later we see that he's still staying in the same hotel. I don't think "Yeah, we were having a few drinks and it got a bit out of control, you know how it is" would cut in in this case.

This film was directed by Po-Chih Leong, a Hong Kong director who made the film Hong Kong: 1941 with Chow Yun Fat, a couple of made-for-TV horror films starring Judd Nelson and a whole bunch of other stuff I've never heard of. In 2006 he teamed up with Wesley Snipes for another round of Direct-to-Video action with The Detonator. Out of Reach is pretty disappointing after the one-two punch that was 2003's Belly of the Beast and Out for a Kill. For a while there in late 2003 it looked like Seagal might be a reliable source of dumb-action. Those films had enough silliness to compensate for the shoddy production values and all-around lack of craftsmanship. Unfortunately it seemed those films were just a blip on Seagal's downward spiral.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Voorhees a Jolly Good Fellow - Part 2

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

As we all know, horror francises are as notoriously hard to kill as Jason himself, and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning was Paramount's attempt to wring some more money from the fans. Okay spoiler coming up, so go and watch the film if you haven't already. Back? Okay, so the killer isn't really Jason but some guy who appeared in the film for about ten seconds making a stupid face. Outfit-wise, he goes for a simple blue jumpsuit with twin breast pockets. The mask also bears different markings than that of the true Jason, and lacks the battle damage sustained during his previous rampages. Under the mask he wears another rubber mask to give him the appearance of the baldy mutant we all know and love. The real Jason does appear in a dream sequence at the beginning of the film, with a cameo by Corey Feldman as Tommy Jarvis. His mask and outfit are more in line with the previous incarnations. In the film's final moments Tommy Jarvis is set up to be the killer in the sequel, as alluded to in The Final Chapter.

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

Fans weren't happy with the twist ending in A New Beginning, so in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, Paramount wisely decided to pretend it never happened. A fully grown Tommy Jarvis accidentally resurrects Jason's corpse and zombie Jason goes around murdering camp counsellors in the newly reopened Camp Crystal Lake (renamed Forest Green). A nice touch is that throughout the film he steals gear from the people he kills. By the end he has some yellow work gloves, a hunting knife with holster and also a few pouches around his waist. It's like Rob Liefeld's Jason Voorhees. They do a good job with the mask (Tommy had it with him when he dug up Jason, for sentimental purposes I guess), it's pretty much identical to The Final Friday, it even has the crack from the axe blow. He is only briefly seen without his mask at the beginning, and his face is all magotty and rotten, he looks like a zombie from a Lucio Fulci film. Tommy Jarvis ends up sinking him to the bottom of Crystal Lake by chaining a boulder around his neck.

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood tries to mix things up by including a girl named Tina with Carrie-esque telepathic abilities. Said abilities accidentally raise Jason from the depths of the lake and, after his obligatory rampage of death, send him back again. It looks like they tried hard to maintain continuity in this film. His mask has not only the axe wound but also the chunk out of it from Part VI. He still has the chains around his neck from the previous film and his outfit is ragged and torn after being underwater for who knows how long. There's even bones visible where the flesh has rotted away. This looks kind of silly since Jason (played by Kane Hodder) is a hulking behemoth, but good on them for trying to document his decomposition. You get a good look at him without his mask too, and he's probably one of the most elaborate Jasons yet. Yet somehow I don't think this works as well as the previous films. It's just too clean, too sculpted. He looks like a movie monster.

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

With Jason Takes Manhattan the series reaches all new heights of silliness. Jason is resurrected when a underwater electrical cable at the bottom of Crystal Lake is damaged by a couple of teens in a passing yacht. He kills the occupants and appropriates the hockey mask that the guy had used earlier to scare his girlfriend. In a striking attention to detail, the mask even has the axe-wound from Part III. Apparently Crystal Lake is connected to the Eastern seaboard, because the next day Jason hitches a ride on a cruise ship headed for Vancouver... uh, I mean New York. Jason wears an all black outfit, similar to Part VI, except now his gloves are also black and his clothes are miraculously mended. His exposed skin is black and rotten. It's at the end, when the sewers undergo their nightly flushing with toxic waste (whuh?) that we see Jason without his mask. His face is all melty and gross thanks to the toxic waste, but by the end of it he has morphed into a fat little kid in a bathing costume. Lame!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Voorhees a Jolly Good Fellow - Part 1

Jason Voorhees has seen many screen incarnations during his illustrious career, from fucked-up retard kid to fucked-up zombie mutant. In the next few posts I'll be taking a look at some of the ways everyone's favourite slasher has been realised on the silver screen.

Friday the 13th (1980)

As any fan of Friday the 13th knows (or if you've seen Scream), Jason wasn't the killer in the first film. It was revealed to be Pamela Voorhees, Jason's mother, seeking revenge on the fornicating camp counsellors whom she blamed for her son's death. It still might be useful to look at Pamela Voorhees's outfit as a basis for comparison: She opts for a baggy, light-coloured cable-knit jumper with dark pants. Always good to wear loose, comfortable clothing when you're on a killing rampage. Jason does make a brief appearance at the end, dragging Alice to a watery grave. In a dream sequence anyway. In this incarnation Jason is still a little boy, a retard mutant with a fucked up swollen head. He's in bad shape, but he's been in the water for over 20 years so give him a break. Not sure about his outfit. He is either naked or still wearing his swimming trunks.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Whoops, turns out Jason didn't die after all, which makes Pamela's rampage kind of pointless. If only Pamela could have stumbled across his backwoods shack this whole tragedy could have been averted. He does build a little shrine around her severed head though, which is kind of sweet. Anyway, Jason gets his revenge against the heroine of the first film before returning to Camp Crystal Lake and killing a bunch of teenagers with pitchforks, knives, etc. Bag-head Jason is probably my favourite Jason of all time. I think it's the fact that he's the most recognisably human plus there's just something creepy about a burlap sack with a single eye hole. He goes for the classic working-class ensemble of a checked shirt, denim overalls and workboots. Without his mask we see Jason is a lumpy mutant and while later Jasons were mostly bald, this one has some patchy hair and even a beard. Never trust men with beards, I say. They have something to hide.

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

Friday the 13th Part III takes place immediately after the conclusion of Part 2. Jason mindlessly kills a whole bunch of people... but this time in 3-D! The technology is put to use in possibly it's best application ever when Jason squeezes a dude's head until his eyeball pops out and flies towards the screen. It's in this sequel that Jason gains his iconic hockey mask, possibly recognising it's benefits of depth perception over his single-eyed sack. Early in the film he kills a couple of store owners and changes outfits. This time he chooses the simple look of a dark blue shirt and some faded jeans, a look that would stick around for some time. Wouldn't it have been funny if he'd picked an "I'm with stupid" t-shirt or something? Sans mask he's still a lumpy mutant, but somewhere between Part 2 and Part 3 he found the time to shave his face/head. Some guys can rock the shaved head like nobody's business, but I don't think Jason pulls it off. Plus he shaved off the eyebrows and that's just fruity.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

The rather inaccurately titled Friday the 13th: The Final Friday once again takes place immediately after Part III. After Jason's corpse is taken to the morgue, it leaps off the slab, kills a couple of nurses and heads out to the woods to continue his rampage. I can understand why you would want to start a horror sequel this way, it avoids a lot of tricky continuity issues. However, Jason's rampage has been going on for around four days by now, and groups of horny holidaymakers are still arriving by the carload. Set up some roadblocks or something. Anyway, they did a decent job of maintaining the continuity of the previous film. He bears the bloody axe-wound that supposedly killed him in the previous film, but his mask is slightly different, no longer bearing the red markings on the cheeks. He's also no longer wearing a white t-shirt underneath his blue shirt and his pants look a little different. However, this is probably my favourite maskless incarnation of Jason. He is still recognisably human, but his skin is grey and wrinkly and his teeth are crooked. He also looks wet and slimy, as he should. Tom Savini did the effects, saying he wanted to give Jason the send off he deserved, and he certainly succeeded. Jason gets a machete to the face and then sli-i-ides down the blade and is furiously stabbed to death by Corey Feldman (as weirdo kid Tommy Jarvis). What a way to go.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Into the Sun (2005)

Seagal takes his dates to the nicest places

Into the Sun
is one of four 2005 films starring Steven Seagal. It does differentiate itself from the others however, thanks to a more interesting setting (Japan), a greater amount of action and a less confusing plot. The film boasts higher production values than most of Seagal's Direct-to-Video output (it actually got a theatrical release in Japan) and looks colourful and stylish. With the neon signs, pachinko parlours and elephants (the elephants aren't in Tokyo, though) it's nice to look at even when the middle of the movie begins to drag. Between this film and Belly of the Beast, I'm beginning to think that all Seagal films should be filmed in Asia. I'd take the colourful setting of Thailand or Tokyo over the usual depressingly drab Eastern European locations any day of the week.

The film opens with Jungle Action Seagal (tm) and his partner on a mission in Myanmar, spying on heroin smugglers. He breaks cover to stop a girl from being raped, shooting one of the thugs with a silenced rifle and then bafflingly picking up an AK-47 to shoot the other, alerting everyone to his presence. The two of them manage to escape, but Seagal's partner is fatally wounded as the helicopter lifts off. Seagal quits in disgust.

When a Japanese governor is assassinated by a gang of Yakuza punks, Homeland Security (with a vague reference to "terrorism") calls the CIA who calls the FBI who call Travis Archer, sword saleman and freelance CIA agent. Seagal has tackled characters with a wide variety of professions; ex-CIA chef, ex-CIA doctor, ex-CIA CIA agent, but ex-CIA sword salesman? There's a profession with a truly Seagalian potential for violence.

Soon after arriving Seagal runs into the Yakuza punks at a marketplace, where he puts a half dozen of them in the hospital. One of the group cuts off his little finger in an act of contrition, and Kuroda, the Yakuza boss, just tosses it in the bin and shoots him in the head. What a bastard! You see, these young turks have no regard for proud Yakuza traditions. They're even teaming up with the Tongs to try and consolidate their power. The old guard are very unhappy with these young upstarts, and pretty soon the young punks are assassinating the old Yakuza in an attempt to take over Tokyo.

During his investigations, Seagal has a few brief conversations with a waitress named Nayako. Now, I figured they were just friends. He says "I love you", but I figured it was some sort of father/daughter type relationship, since she's half his age, maybe younger. Boy was I surprised when all of the sudden he proposes to her in a park full of cherry blossoms. Then they queasily consummate their relationship is a rather chaste bedroom scene (there's some sideboob, but Seagal wears a baggy shirt). Anyway, in a Seagal film that's as good as painting a target on your forehead, and sure enough a Yakuza punk slices her open with a sword. He even steals the antique comb that Seagal gave her. Well, that's all the motivation Seagal needs to head to Kuroda's renovated temple and slice some fools.

Although Asian themes have always been a part of Seagal films, this is first time when swords have been so important to the plot. Usually Seagal just finds one hanging on the wall of the villain's house. There's even a reference to Yojimbo where Seagal kills three or four punks and then wrecks up the place. Although in Yojimbo he was trying to make it look like they were killed by a gang of assailants, here it doesn't make any sense. Despite the fact that the Yakuza punks laugh at the idea of anyone carrying a sword in this day and age, by the climax of the film it seems every young punk is packing a blade. Seagal probably carves up a dozen Yakuza, along with the help of former student Mei Ling (Pace Wu) and tattoo artist Kawamura (Daisuke Honda). It's pretty violent, and the paper screens, spurting blood and gruesome sound effects call to mind Kill Bill, if not the bloody chambara films that inspired it.

So, there's a higher amount of hand-to-hand combat than in a lot of Seagal's recent films. Seagal even gets kicked in the head and through a table, a rare case of Seagal actually being injured (not that it amounts to anything, he shrugs it off instantly). Seagal's climactic battle with Kuroda could probably be longer and makes copious use of stunt doubles, but it's pretty good. The rest of the film is Seagal going from place to place and chatting with various Japanese/Chinese contacts at fancy nightclubs. In one club there's a pretty lousy comedian on stage but there's also a couple of topless women swimming in a fish tank so it all evens out.

Seagal is also saddled with a rookie field agent named Mack. There's a bit of fish-out-of-water humour, but this isn't the buddy picture you might expect. During the fight at the marketplace, Mack gets nervous and there's an AD (Accidental Discharge). In any other action film it might have been laughed off, but here it's treated like the huge fuckup it is and Seagal gets really pissed off. So while Seagal fraternises with the locals he tells Mack to go do some covert surveillance at the fish market. Of course, Mack fucks up again, rooting around in a glass-fronted office that overlooks the entire fish market. Eventually he gets captured and murdered by the Yakuza and Seagal doesn't even know or care where he is for the rest of the film.

The cast is a mixture of Chinese and Japanese actors. The Tong leader Chen is played by Ken Lo, an actor with quite an impressive list of roles in Hong Kong film. I was really excited to see Chiaki Kuriyama (from Battle Royale and Kill Bill), but her appearance was just a ten second cameo. Seagal speaks Japanese sometimes, but other times the conversations will go back and forth with Seagal speaking English and the other person speaking Japanese. Julliete Marquis plays a lollipop-sucking CIA agent called Jewel who follows Seagal around for the entire film, only to show up at the end to spray the aftermath of Seagals battle with a blue goo that destroys DNA evidence.

Into the Sun is directed by a mink, and I must say he/she does very well for a ~1kg semi-aquatic mammal. Oh wait, no, it's the name of a music video director. Despite the unassuming lower case name, mink actually lends quite a nice look to the film. The camera work is energetic, but it never overwhelms the plot or the action, which is something I wish I could say about most music video turned film directors. This is by far the best Seagal film of 2005.

The Foreigner (2003)

Another bad guy falls victim to Seagal

The Foreigner was originally destined for theatrical release but was shelved when Today You Die tanked and eventually it was dumped Direct-to-Video. That was probably for the best. Steven Seagal plays Jonathan Cold, a lone-wolf CIA agent (no surprises there) who is partnered with the weasely Dunoir (Max Ryan) and tasked to deliver a mysterious package. When they get to the farmhouse where the package is being stored, they are abushed by Danish agents and barely escape with their lives. In an action scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film, pulsing techno and oodles of slow motion and camera trickery accompany every pissy little stunt, trying to fool the audience into thinking something exciting is happening. It's really rather embarassing.

So it turns out that Dunoir is actually a bad guy (he's a heavy smoker, a dead giveaway) and wants the package for himself. I can't remember who he is working for because the film is utterly incomprehensible. It is one of those films where everybody talks in cryptic terms about their "employer" and usually double and/or triple crosses them by the end anyway. Dunoir is probably the worst secret agent ever, needlessly shooting CIA bigwigs, maids, hotel clerks and random Polish Porsche-owners. He miraculously survives a number of deaths himself, including being blasted through a second-story window by two successive shotgun blasts (he is wearing a flak jacket, you see), barely outrunning an enormous explosion and being shot in the chest by Seagal (flak jacket again). In the end he gets a very Seagalian arm break before being killed.

During his adventures Seagal runs afoul of a number of competing agents, including a stylish American fellow named Mr. Mimms, an eloquent British assassin and a whole bunch of other boring European villians. The masterminds behind the whole operation are wealthy couple Jerome and Meredith Van Aken, although each have their own motives and you are kept in the dark about who the true villian is until the very end. Not that you'll care. The film tries to compensate for a thin plot by throwing in so many twists, turns and side characters that you'll give up trying to make sense of it long before it limps over the finish line. I suppose multiple viewings could aleviate some of the confusion, but good luck with that, I could barely sit through it once.

Seagal keeps the bad guys off his back with secret agent trickery, such as exploding a railway station with a phony package and tossing a compact disc stuck with plastic explosives at a guy, blasting him through a window and into the river. So I guess most of his tricks involve things exploding, but some of the explosions are quite impressive. The biggest ones are accompanied by a very Bond-esque horn section instead of the annoying techno.

There's also a part where Seagal and Dunoir briefly team up to infiltrate the Van Aken estate (this is the second time Seagal has done so, if I were Van Aken I'd fire my security detail). Dunoir pulls out his pistol to shoot a group of nearby guards before saying "Fuck it. I'll use the rifle" and bizarrely shooting them all with a sniper rifle at near point blank range. I couldn't understand his decision until later, when he attempted to shoot Seagal in the back, only to find that Seagal had given him an empty pistol. That's the kind of half-assed storytelling we are dealing with here.

There's a fair bit of action in this film for Direct-to-Video, lots of gunfire and explosions, but annoying editing ruins most of it. Seagal only gets into a couple of fistfights and they are laughably poor. His fight with Mr. Mimms is supposed to resemble "sticky hands" kung fu but looks more like two Soccer moms squabbling over a sale item. He has no love interest, but when he is introduced a hot French redhead (less than half his age) is dressing in his hotel room. Seagal himself is fully clothed, since by this time he'd started to bloat up with an orange tan and frizzy hair.

This is one of Seagal's earliest Direct-to-Video efforts and despite a poor reception it established the template for many Seagal films to follow: convoluted plots, drab cinematography, dreary locations and long Seagal-free stretches where boring side characters talk-talk-talk in secret agent cliches. Someone, somewhere must have been clamouring for the further adventures of Jonathan Cold, because he reprised the role in 2005 with Black Dawn.